Every country I have ever lived in or even visited celebrates holidays. Everyone loves holidays; workers have the day off and are usually paid for not working, students do not have to go to class, retailers sell more seasonal goods, and it’s an excuse to get together with friends and family. Sometimes I wonder if holidays are really intended to celebrate a specific occasion or are just an excuse to have a good time.
While universally popular, specific holidays vary from country to country. Many holidays celebrate the birth and life of a famous patriot or leader. Other holidays celebrate a specific event such as a national military victory or declaration of freedom and independence; some holidays celebrate a religious event or occasion, and other holidays recognize a calendar event such as the start of a new year. But I continue to wonder if the historical event or occasion is what is celebrated or is a holiday just an excuse to party. So, let’s look at the evidence.
Recently I was invited to attend a Cinco de Mayo party in San Diego. “Cinco de Mayo” means “May 5” in Spanish. Ostensibly Cinco de Mayo celebrates the victory of Mexican troops over the French soldiers of Napoleon III on May 5, 1862. This battle is otherwise called the Battle of Puebla, where it was fought. The result of the Mexican victory was short-lived, however, because the French defeated the Mexicans a year later, took over Mexico City, and installed their own ruler, Emperor Maximilian 1.
Today Cinco de Mayo is typically not celebrated in Mexico except in Puebla, but it is widely celebrated in the U.S., especially in the southwestern states which border Mexico. The holiday has become an excuse to have a party, eat Mexican food, and drink beer and margaritas. When asked why Cinco de Mayo is being celebrated, most have no clue but some evidently claim it is Mexican Independence Day (wrong, that’s in September). So why is the holiday marking the victory of Mexican troops over the French celebrated in the U.S. and not Mexico?
It must be an excuse to party.
I lived in England in 2006 and Australia for several years beginning in 2008. Great Britain and all the Commonwealth countries including Australia celebrate the Queen’s birthday. Queen Elizabeth II has been the Queen of England and the Commonwealth countries since 1952; she was born April 21, 1926. One would think by now the responsible officials would be able to put her birthday on the calendar correctly.
In Australia, we celebrated the Queen’s Birthday on the second Monday in June. Apparently, the Aussies like three-day weekends and there are already other holidays in April so June seemed like a logical month. Great Britain decided to celebrate her birthday on the second Saturday in June apparently because it is a big tourist event and is now accompanied by formal parades and pageantry. Tourists are not likely to watch the parade in cold, rainy April weather so June seemed like a good choice.
Other countries like New Zealand celebrate the Queen’s birthday at other times. So, celebrating the Queen’s birthday apparently has nothing to do with the Queen’s actual birthday but represents an opportunity to have a holiday, take time off, and sell tourists lots of trinkets.
In the U.S., our first President, George Washington was born February 22, 1732. Celebrating his birthday seems like something we should do, and some states celebrate his birthday specifically. Abraham Lincoln, another great U.S. President, was born February 12, 1809, and some states celebrate Lincoln’s birthday. But all states and the Federal Government celebrate our President’s Day National Holiday on the third Monday in February. This year, that was February 19, which is neither Washington’s or Lincoln’s birthday, but it did provide a three-day weekend to celebrate the late stages of winter and the approaching springtime.
Some holidays are specific to the calendar. January 1 is always New Year’s Day unless you live in Asia and celebrate Chinese or any of the Lunar New Year’s which typically commence with the first new moon of the new year. Jews celebrate the new year of Rosh Hashanah which relates to a Hebrew Calendar and is typically in September or October.
May Day is May 1 each year but its origins are also complicated. Generally, May Day seems to be a holiday that celebrates the approaching springtime. Long ago, Romans celebrated the arrival of spring on April 27; other countries celebrated April 30. Originally, May Day was a pagan holiday; then it was a religious holiday including the Catholic celebration of the Virgin Mary. When religious holidays become less popular, it became a secular holiday. (Holidays can change in purpose but never go away; they are just recharacterized.)
The Communists adopted May Day as a day to celebrate International Workers (aka Communists). It seems people all over the world celebrate May Day but for lots of different reasons and history. Recently I was in Morocco, a predominately Arab country, and it is a national holiday there. I did not ask why because I did not think the reason mattered.
There are lots or religious holidays, but many such holidays often appear to have gained popularity as counter-programming to holidays of competitive religions or beliefs. Christians celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25 each year, but historians have no clue what day Jesus was actually born. So why December 25? Apparently, there was a pagan festival every year to celebrate the winter solstice and the god of agriculture, Saturn. The festival generally ended on or about December 25. After the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the year 312, church leaders decided to celebrate Christ’s birth on a holiday each December 25. Without Christmas, the church would not have an attractive alternative to the pagan festival.
Similarly, Jews, especially in the U.S., celebrate Hanukkah with festivities and significant gift giving. Hanukkah is around the same time as Christmas each year. Hanukkah in Israel and other places of Jewish focus is a minor holiday and not widely celebrated, but it provides an alternative holiday with presents for all to celebrate when Christian neighbors celebrate Christmas with its extensive commercial overtones.
Sometimes holidays evolve and are enhanced. Easter celebrates the resurrection of Christ, but it was unlikely Christ was resurrected on the first Sunday after the full moon that appears on or after the vernal equinox, as most U.S. Christian churches follow. Easter has evolved through the centuries to include colored Easter eggs, the Easter Bunny, an Easter egg hunt, and lots of candy.
Some holidays represent an important milestone for part of the population but not all. Columbus Day celebrates the European discovery of the new world which ultimately led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans through disease. Worth noting: Native Americans typically do not celebrate Columbus Day.
Similarly, Australians celebrate Australia Day to commemorate when the English landed on the continent’s shores. Aboriginal residents do not celebrate the arrival of the Europeans but they do enjoy having a national holiday in Australia’s summertime.
After considerable thought and some research, it appears to me holidays are:
The actual dates to be celebrated and the details of history are just not that important.
I am looking forward to tacos and Mexican beer at the neighborhood get-together next year when we celebrate Cinco de Mayo in southern California.
Scott MacDonald has been CEO, President, or Managing Director of several companies. His book, Saving Investa; How an ex-factory worker helped save one of Australia’s iconic companies, has won numerous awards.